Ronaldo 1, Coke zero: What happens when big brands clash?

Business of Sport: The discomfort of Ronaldo, Pogba, Locatelli et al with some commerical brands signals the beginning of a rethink for sponsors and product placement.
Ronaldo 1, Coke zero: What happens when big brands clash?

Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘snub’ of Coca-Cola was a mixture of brand belligerence and commercial exhaustion, says Ian Mallon.

One week on from the commercial catastrophe that Cristiano Ronaldo dished out to Coca-Cola at Euro 2020, the real issue now is how sponsors develop and manage their relationships with footballers who they don’t pay directly.

Ronaldo’s brand humiliation of an $80bn (€67bn) company with the removal of two Coke bottles from his media podium, highlighted a growing tension between players and their national association duties.

It wouldn’t have happened if it were a Juventus press conference, or if it was an event in which Coca-Cola was paying the star directly.

There has always been some resentment by certain stars to assisting their national association through sponsorship activities during international camp, and these will certainly be heightened as a result of Cristiano’s commercial irresponsibility.

Shortly before Euro 2016 in France, Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill cleverly communicated to his players well in advance of the tournament that they would see an increased level of media and commercial expectations from the FAI, its partners, and Uefa.

To communicate this directly he asked me to address the Irish squad on the issue, in order for there to be no element of surprise once the players were in pre-tournament and tournament camps.

O’Neill was masterful in managing his players and the commercial demands placed on them, so much so the sponsorship and media side of things rarely became an issue.

He is perhaps no different to other managers taking teams to the Euros but the level of detail and preparation he undertook around this non-footballing matter was exceptional and led to a smooth series of activations before and during the tournament.

With regards to players carrying out sponsorship duties for partners who pay their national association and not the players themselves or their employers (clubs), I always found that the bigger stars were the more professional in their outlook and attitude.

You will always have outliers where one or two players will point blank refuse or ask if they can be excused and will “do the next one” – not in a vicious or spiteful way – and that is fine if their profiles are not exceptional.

Young stars coming into the squad are always eager to please with youthful enthusiasm, which usually disappears by the time they return to the squad a fourth or fifth time.

With any team going to Euro 2020 they will all have been communicated with about the increased media and commercial demands pre and during competition.

They will be told of increased numbers of national press beyond the football writer pool, greater interest from international rights holders, including BBC and Canal+, greater engagement with and the rights holders covering their opponents in each game.

They will also be made aware of green screen video and photographic shoots for Uefa, suit fittings, and TV and digital broadcast commercial productions for partners, which can take an entire day.

Players will be told that if they are man of the match, or ‘Star of the Match’ (sponsored by Heineken) they will be immediately taken from the pitch to a press conference. Players will be told that win or lose, Uefa will request a large number of them to present for broadcast interviews in the ‘tunnel’ with rights holders.

And all of this will be managed carefully so as not to heap pressure on athletes who are already beginning to feel the weight of expectation of an entire nation.

I have no doubt Ronaldo’s implosion pre-Portugal v Hungary was a mixture of brand belligerence and commercial exhaustion, even for someone who is more used than any to high pressure situations.

For a player who is a huge brand himself — CR7 — and the first person to pass 300m followers on Instagram, Ronaldo is reflecting a mood that will become more difficult in international team environments.

This was all about the money — Ronaldo had no problem with Coke in 2006 when he was their golden child in a high-profile campaign — or KFC, as has been recently pointed out. His discomfort with certain brands, as well as Paul Pogba’s (Heineken) and Manuel Locatelli — who also removed bottles of Coca Cola — is the beginning of a rethink for sponsors and product placement.

It’s certainly forcing a rethink for Uefa who reminded participating teams that “partnerships are integral to the delivery of the tournament and to ensuring the development of football across Europe, including for youth and women.”

An expert in commercial partnerships, Jill Downey MD of Core Sponsorship, questions the practice of an Americanised concept of sitting a product with a star.

“There is a difference with having a right to do something and what is the right thing to do,” she explained. “I have sympathy for Coke in this situation, a brand that has supported tournaments for decades. But just because it is in the contract (to allow product appear on the table) does that mean it should happen? Should it really have been in the contract in the first place. It just doesn’t look right or comfortable, and if something doesn’t look right, it generally isn’t.

“I just don’t think those tactics sit as well with a European audience as they do in America, and I’d love to know where the ultimately risky decision to place product in front of a player was made (in the US or in Europe?). Was there any scenario planning for this kind of situation? Any risk mitigation?

“Coke has every right to be there as a sponsor, they have a great history with football, are part of the fun and enjoyment of the tournament and they bring excitement to the experience.

“But within a press conference environment there is a sense that such placement is shoving it in the audience’s faces a little, and would that potentially lead fans to think that ‘Coke just don’t get us, but fair play to Ronaldo, he certainly does’?”

Downey, like the Financial Times is sceptical the incident had such a disastrous effect on Coca Cola’s value —- $4bn wiped off by some estimates — the FT noted that shares had “slipped by 1% in morning trade before the press conference even began, a drop that accounts for most of the day’s losses”.

It certainly looks — one week on from the branding humiliation — that Coca Cola are stuck in a state of marketing paralysis, refusing to back down on their bottles and props on stage.

Coca Cola has every right to stand firm and demand full exposure as per their contracts with Uefa for props on tables, and they pay in the region of between €30-50mm for such privileged positioning. However, it might be simpler if Coke opted for their Euro 2016 tactic of having their logo embedded on the backdrop, a move which would guarantee no further calamity.

While many hailed Ronaldo’s stance as noble and just, it was anything but, it was unprofessional and will have had repercussions for his Portuguese federation. Ronaldo was, after all, the player who effectively endorsed the announcement the company would be ‘the official non-alcoholic beverage sponsor for Uefa Euro 2020’ in a Uefa press release in September 2019.

Another key issue that makes brands and sponsors shudder around competitions is for domestic partners, who effectively take a back seat once competition starts. Outside of MatchDay -1 and MatchDay, domestic brands can be present at the training ground and national team media centre.

However on the eve of the game, when the training session takes place in the stadium and for the match itself, logos, labels, and all references must disappear. In the case of the Irish team ‘3’ logos and ‘Celtic Pure’ water bottles disappeared and opportunities for big branding for those companies disappeared.

The bigger question for now is the use of props and how they are handled in future, and if the use of US-style activations even works in Europe.

Live press conferences at the Euros are highly pressurised situations, and deeply risky environments. Putting anything in front of a footballer is extremely fraught as Coca-Cola have learned to their detriment.

  • Ian Mallon was director of communications for the Republic of Ireland at Euro 2016 and is a strategic consultant with Uefa.

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